Adrenal Gland Disorders
Diagram of the adrenal glands (source: www.nichd.nih.gov)
National Insitute of Child Health and Human Development
What are the adrenal glands?
The adrenal glands are the part of the body responsible for releasing three different classes of hormones. These hormones control many important functions in the body, such as:
- Maintaining metabolic processes, such as managing blood sugar levels and regulating inflammation
- Regulating the balance of salt and water
- Controlling the “fight or flight” response to stress
- Maintaining pregnancy
- Initiating and controlling sexual maturation during childhood and puberty
The adrenal glands are also an important source of sex steroids, such as estrogen and testosterone.
What are adrenal gland disorders?
Adrenal gland disorders occur when the adrenal glands don’t work properly. Sometimes, the cause is a problem in another gland that helps to regulate the adrenal gland. In other cases, the adrenal gland itself may have the problem. The NICHD conducts and supports research on many adrenal gland disorders. Some examples include:
Cushing’s Syndrome – Cushing’s syndrome happens when a person’s body is exposed to too much of the hormone cortisol. In this syndrome, a person’s body makes more cortisol than it needs. For example, adrenal tumors can cause the body to produce too much cortisol. In some cases, children are born with a form of adrenal hyperplasia that leads to Cushing syndrome. Or, in some cases, certain medications can cause the body to make too much cortisol
Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia – Congenital adrenal hyperplasia is a genetic disorder of adrenal gland deficiency. In this disorder, the body doesn’t make enough of the hormone cortisol. The bodies of people with congenital adrenal hyperplasia may also have other hormone imbalances, such as not making enough aldosterone, but making too much androgen.
Pituitary Tumors – The pituitary gland is located in the brain and helps to regulate the activity of most other glands in the body, including the adrenal glands. In rare cases, benign (non-cancerous) tumors may grow on the pituitary gland, which may restrict the hormones it releases.
In some cases, tumors on the pituitary can lead to Cushing’s syndrome – this is called Cushing disease. In other cases, the tumors reduce the adrenal gland’s release of hormones needed for the “fight or flight” response to stress. If the body is unable to handle physiological stress—a condition called Addison’s disease—it can be fatal.
What are the treatments for adrenal gland disorders?
The treatment for adrenal gland disorders depends on the specific disorder or the specific cause of the disorder. For example:
The treatment for Cushing’s Syndrome depends on the cause. If the excess cortisol is caused by medication, your health care provider can change dosages or try a different medication to correct the problem. If the Cushing’s Syndrome is caused by the body making too much cortisol, treatments may include oral medication, surgery, radiation, or a combination of these treatments.
Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia can’t be cured, but it can be treated and controlled. People with congenital adrenal hyperplasia can take medication to help replace the hormones their bodies are not making. Some people with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia only need these medications when they are sick, but others may need to take them every day.
Doctors can successfully treat most Pituitary Tumors with microsurgery, radiation therapy, surgery, drugs, or a combination of these treatments. Surgery is currently the treatment of choice for tumors that grow rapidly, especially if they threaten or affect vision. The treatment plan for other pituitary tumors differs according to the type and size of the tumor.